The National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) has confirmed that the national cutoff score for the ‘Commended Student’ designation will be 211 for the class of 2018—or 2 points higher than the cutoff for the class of 2017. While the higher cut score isn’t particularly predictive of state-by-state ‘Semifinalist’ cutoffs (except possibly at the lowest levels), it does reinforce speculation that continued upward pressure on PSAT/NMSQT® scores may result in higher score requirements for students hoping to earn National Merit Scholarships in some states.
“A simple response to a 2-point increase in the Commended Student cutoff would be to assume a 2-point increase in state Semifinalist cutoffs. It turns out that things are far from simple,” writes Art Sawyer in the Compass Education Group blog. “Based on our research, we are predicting that the most common state cutoff changes will be +0, +1, and +2. We expect that a small number of cutoffs may drop a point or go up by 3 points.”
And between changes in test scoring eliminating the guessing penalty and changes in the scale (from 20-80 to 160-760), the use of data from years prior to 2016 make estimates for state-by-state cutoffs a little complicated.
In addition, the scoring changes together with a new computation for the PSAT/NMSQT “Selection Index” (math, writing/language and reading on a scale of 8 to 38 multiplied by two) also put into play the possibility that two students from the same state with identical Total PSAT/NMSQT scores from the October test could have very different outcomes—one commended (or semifinalist) and one not.
According to the NMSC website, of 1.6 million NMS entrants, roughly 50,000 with the highest Selection Index (SI) scores qualify for recognition in the scholarship program. Note that only students taking the PSAT/NMSQT in the 11th grade qualify.
About 34,000 or more than two-thirds of the high scoring juniors receive Letters of Commendation. These students are named on the basis of a “nationally applied” SI score which varies from year-to-year and is typically below the level required for participants to be named semifinalists in most states. For the class of 2017, the cutoff score was 209. In 2016, the last year to use the “old” PSAT, the cutoff score was 202. In 2015, it was 201 and in 2014, it was 203.
The increase in this year’s cutoff for commended status is in line with generally inflated PSAT scores, which may have been encouraging to students initially hoping to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. Unfortunately, life isn’t always so straightforward and the NMS competition is anything but straightforward. State-by-state semifinalist cutoffs are predictable within a range. But only after the NMSC applies a little politics to its formula and the announcement is made in September will there be any certainty as to who qualifies as a semifinalist. To earn the title of “finalist,” these students will have to jump through an additional series of largely bureaucratic administrative hoops.
To facilitate the conversation about the class of 2018, however, Compass Education Group has come up with a chart predicting “estimated ranges” (with 1330 comments) for the state-by-state semifinalist cutoff. The ranges “reflect the variability of year-to-year changes within a state” and are based on research conducted by the test wizards at Compass Prep. While interesting, the ranges and “most likely” scores are by no means guaranteed.
At this point, it’s not worth spending a whole lot of time worrying about PSAT/NMSQT® results. They are predictive of very little beyond possible achievement on the SAT. Colleges will never see these scores, and how the NMSC determines state-by-state semifinalist cutoffs is entirely out of anyone’s control.